The line of cars waiting to enter San Fernando High School on Monday, April 20, was nearly two blocks long. All were waiting patiently to enter the northeast section of the campus for the two free meals that have been offered almost daily by officials from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) since the pandemic outbreak of the coronavirus forced closure of all district schools on March 13.
San Fernando High is one of 63 district schools now being operated as a “grab-and-go” food center offering free meals to youths and adults who either drive or walk up to a facility to collect it, no questions asked.
One parent, Lulu Herrera, spoke of her gratitude for the program.
“I’ve come a few times. I actually deliver the food to my father-in-law and sister-in-law. It helps keep [the father-in-law] fed throughout the day because there is no one at home with him until the evening — his daughter is a nurse — so he’s fed all day. And my sister-in-law has two children with asthma,” Herrera said.
District Superintendent Austin Beutner came to San Fernando High on Monday in part to tout LAUSD for having given out 10 million meals since the program began. School personnel also handed out donated athletic equipment and candy from the See’s company on Monday.
“When we started this effort a matter of weeks ago, our commitment was to serve all of those in need — children and adults. And we continue to do so,” said Beutner, who visited Garfield High School in Los Angeles before coming to San Fernando High.
“We’re serving more people than any other relief effort in the country. And we’re going to keep doing this as long as the need is there in the communities we serve.”
Noted school principal Flora Mendoza-Werner, “in our community we are feeling a greater need to support our students and their parents, and the community as a whole. That’s the purpose of ‘grab-and-go.’ And more and more families are coming in for this service as time goes by.”
But not all of the news was celebratory. It was later revealed by Beutner that the district is facing $200 million in unanticipated costs from the pandemic.
The largest chunk of that $200 million is for operating the food centers. A charitable fund established by Beutner to solicit donations to the district has yielded about $6 million, but the food centers alone have cost the district about $78 million, the superintendent said.
The mounting expenses may not immediately push the district’s $7.87 billion general fund into insolvency, but the unbudgeted spending probably violates state law requiring school systems to maintain a three-year balanced budget, according to published reports. Although state officials may relax those rules in the current crisis, they have not committed to covering the costs incurred by LAUSD.
Beutner called for public support for additional funds from the state to cover the district’s costs.
“At the outset, we said we’re going to do the right thing for students and families and the right thing for our employees who serve students and families,” he said during his weekly televised public address. “That remains our objective. … It’ll take some time as well as public and parental support to make sure we’re properly reimbursed by local, state and federal governments for these investments we’re making in students and families.”
He said the state, which provides 95% of the district’s funding, is likely to be delayed in finalizing its budget for the coming year, so it’s unclear when the district will learn if it will be reimbursed for its additional spending. But he said the district will continue its programs while that decision awaits.
Yet another fluid revision from the impact of the pandemic that continues to create alterations in everyday life.
“The biggest lesson I think for all of us is, ‘deal with the moment but look to the horizon,’” he said at San Fernando High. “Because we have to say, ‘are we going to help our youngest students when we go back to school? And how are we gonna make sure we take care of our bills and get them appropriately paid?’ But at the same time, make sure people get the help they need today.”
City News Service contributed to this report.